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This Whole Head, Pit Cooked Barbacoa Keeps Texas Traditions Alive

lamb barbacoa tacos with salsa picante

For thousands of years, cultures throughout the world have cooked food in the ground. From the Hawaiian Imu cooking to the North American clambake, these traditions were expressions of creativity and of necessity, facilitating an even, slow cooking of the food.


The origins of barbacoa are no different. Although today it’s prepared using different methods, the concept of cooking a whole beef head in the ground with wood coals was known in the Aztec culture as tatema. Throughout Mexico and South Texas, barbacoa may refer to different meats and styles of preparation. In this case, I am referring to the process of slow cooking, overnight, a whole beef or lamb head in a pit in the ground, wrapped in maguey leaves. It’s just one of the traditional methods used by vaqueros, the Latin American cattle herders who once roamed the plains of Texas and Mexico.

vaquero in field with cattle


To this day, we prepare this entire recipe in the backyard on my family’s ranch, from harvesting the maguey leaves to digging the pit and gathering the mesquite. You can make it by simply cooking in a hole dug directly into the ground that’s then been lined with rocks or firebricks, or you can slide a barrel (or two large pipes, as we did) into a hole to make a more permanent in-ground barbecue. Either way, this kind of pit cooking keeps age-old traditions alive.

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Texas Style Lamb Barbacoa Recipe


lamb barbacoa tacos
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5 from 1 vote
This technique of slow-smoking a beef or lamb head wrapped in maguey leaves in a traditional underground pit has been used in many cultures for thousands of years. I grew up eating this kind of whole-head barbacoa with tortillas on my family's ranch in Texas.

Course:
Lunch
,
Main Course
Cuisine:
Mexican
,
Texan

Makes:

6 to 8 pounds of cooked meat
Servings: 20

Takes:

Prep Time: 4 hours
Cook Time: 8 hours
Total Time: 12 hours

Equipment

  • Shovel
  • Rocks or firebricks
  • Mesquite wood chunks
  • Chimney starter 
  • Metal cable 

Ingredients

Notes:
About the pit. Instead of digging a hole in the ground, you could use a pit barrel or even a kettle grill instead. Line the bottom with rocks or firebricks as described, and then build a wood fire or charcoal fire on the rocks or bricks. Proceed as directed, lowering your pot into the pit or grill and putting on the lid (and closing any air vents) to smother the fire.
Metric conversion:

These recipes were created in US Customary measurements and the conversion to metric is being done by calculations. They should be accurate, but it is possible there could be an error. If you find one, please let us know in the comments at the bottom of the page

Method

  • Fire Up. Dig a 36-inch-diameter hole 4 to 5 feet in the ground (or see Notes for alternatives).
    mesquite pit
  • Line the bottom of the pit with rocks or firebricks.
  • Build the fire using large (6-by-18-inch) chunks of mesquite wood.
  • For the maguey leaves, prepare an open fire on a grill. The mesquite fire in the pit will be too hot.
  • Prep the maguey leaves. Use gloves when handling raw maguey leaves, as their juice is a natural skin irritant. Trim away the spines along the sides of each leaf. Best to do this outside as it can get messy!
  • Grill the maguey. Cook the maguey leaves on the grill or over hot coals until they are pliable and the liquid has been completely extracted, 10 to 15 minutes. You will hear them pop and sizzle.
  • Prep the lamb. Using a paring knife, make incisions in the lamb head and then stuff them with garlic cloves. Season all over with salt then slather all over with 4 cups of the salsa.
  • Use a large pot that has a top. It will be inserted into your pit. Overlap the cooked maguey leaves vertically, so as to completely line the bottom and sides of the pot. The tips of the leaves may hang over or out of the rim. 
  • Place the lamb head inside the pot with the nose facing up. Fold over the maguey leaves to completely wrap the lamb head.
    marinated lamb in maguey leaves
  • Add 3 to 4 inches of water and then secure the lid to prevent steam from escaping. You can tie it or weigh it down with a rock.
  • Use a metal cable to lower the pot into the pit in the ground. Make sure not to use rope as it could burn. Cover the hole thoroughly, so that no air can escape. For example, you can use a piece of sheet metal on top. Corrugated roof panels can also work. Do not use wood as the fire is too hot. Cover the metal top and the area surrounding the hole with dirt. Covering the hole will cut off the oxygen source to the fire, leaving only the heated rocks and the burning coals, which allows hot steam to cook the meat without a raging fire overcooking the meat. 
    cooking pot inside earth pit
  • Cook the lamb. Steam until the meat falls off the bone, a process that should take 8 hours. Be sure to watch your timing. If the meat isn't fully cooked, the fire will no longer be hot enough to put it back in the ground and continue cooking. 
  • Remove the meat from the bones then separate it by cuts such as tongue, cheek, and so on. Or slice and serve all the meat mixed together. 
  • Serve. Reap the benefits of all your hard work. Served the sliced or shredded meats on tortillas with the remaining 2 cups salsa, some onion, cilantro and lime wedges for squeezing. 

Related articles

Published On: 8/17/2021 Last Modified: 8/26/2021

  • Adrian Davila -

    Adrian Davila is the award-winning third-generation pitmaster of Davila’s BBQ in Seguin, Texas. He continues to honor his family’s legacy and the traditions of Mexican-American cooking, all while exploring his own unique identity. His grandfather, Raul Davila, opened Davila’s in 1959, and passed the secrets of his smoked barbecue to Adrian’s father, Edward. The family is proud [...]



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